SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is a huge fan of Mars exploration and Mars colonies, and in a new interview he says a launch system to send people to the Red Planet could be available in 10 to 12 years. Requirements: it has to be big, and it has to be launched frequently to send millions of people and tons of cargo spaceward.
“We need to develop a much larger vehicle, which would be a sort of Mars colonial transport system, and this would be, we’re talking about rockets on a bigger scale than has ever been done before. It will make the Apollo moon rocket look small,” said Musk in a recent CBS interview, referring to the 363-foot (110-meter) behemoth that was the Saturn V.
Antares rocket blastoff on Jan. 9 from Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA lofting the Cygnus resupply vehicle on a mission for NASA bound for the International Space Station. Docking at ISS planned for Jan. 12. Both vehicles built by Orbital Sciences. Photo taken by remote camera at launch pad. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace/awaltersphoto.com
See Photo Gallery below
WALLOPS ISLAND, VA – The Cygnus commercial resupply freighter is hurtling towards the International Space Station (ISS) at 17,500 MPH following the flawless Jan. 9 blastoff from NASA Wallops Island, Va., atop the Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares rocket.
Cygnus is bound for the ISS on its historic first operational mission to deliver over 1.5 tons of science experiments, provisions and belated Christmas presents to the six man crew aboard the massive orbiting outpost, under Orbital Science’s $1.9 Billion resupply contract with NASA.
See our up close photo and video gallery of the spectacular Jan 9. Launch – above and below.
The privately built Cygnus cargo vessel is in the midst of a two and a half day high speed orbital chase and is scheduled to rendezvous and dock with the station early Sunday morning, Jan 12.
The Orbital-1 ship is named the “SS C. Gordon Fullerton” in honor of NASA space shuttle astronaut C. Gordon Fullerton who later worked at Orbital Sciences and passed away in 2013.
The imagery was shot by remote cameras set up all around the NASA Wallops Launch Pad 0A as well as from the media viewing site some 2 miles away.
Currently, the Cygnus spacecraft is barely 12 hours from its carefully choreographed arrival at the station on Sunday morning.
NASA TV will provide live coverage starting at 5 a.m. EST Sunday – http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/
“All Cygnus systems are performing as expected with no issues,” said Orbital Sciences in an update.
“The spacecraft has conducted five orbit-raising maneuvers and is on track for rendezvous with the International Space Station tomorrow morning [Sunday, Jan. 12].”
“Cygnus will maneuver to a distance of about 30 feet from the station,” said Frank Culbertson, executive vice president and general manager of Orbital’s advanced spaceflight programs group, and former Space Shuttle commander.
The goal of Orbital Sciences Cygnus – and the Space X Dragon – is to restore America’s cargo delivery capabilities to low Earth orbit and the ISS that was totally lost following the forced retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttles, by utilizing new and privately developed resupply freighters that will cuts costs.
Cygnus is packed with 2,780 pounds (1261 kg) of station supplies and vital research experiments.
Expedition 38 crew members Engineers Mike Hopkins and Koichi Wakata aboard the station will reach out and with the stations 57 foot long Canadarm2 and grapple Cygnus with the robotic arm on Sunday at 6:02 a.m. EDT.
Hopkins and Wakata will then carefully maneuver the robot arm and guide Cygnus to its berthing port on the Earth-facing side of the Harmony node.
The installation begins around 7:20 a.m. EDT. And NASA TV will provide continuous live coverage of Cygnus rendezvous, docking and berthing operations.
The majestic blastoff of Orbital Science’s two stage Antares rocket took place from a beachside pad at NASA’s Wallop’s Flight Facility along the eastern shore of Virginia, Thursday, at 1:07 p.m. EST.
The station was flying about 260 miles over the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Brazil as Antares soared aloft.
Following the 10 minute ascent to orbit, Cygnus separated as planned from the ATK built upper stage about 30 minutes after launch. The Ukrainian supplied first stage fired for approximately four and one half minutes
The solar arrays deployed as planned once Cygnus was in Earth orbit to provide life giving energy required to command the spacecraft.
The picture perfect launch of the 133 foot tall Antares put on a spectacular sky show following a trio of delays since mid- December 2013.
The first postponement was forced when spacewalking astronauts were called on to conduct urgent repairs to fix an unexpected malfunction in the critical cooling system on board the station.
Then, unprecedented frigid weather caused by the ‘polar vortex’ forced a one day from Jan. 7 to Jan. 8.
Finally, an unexpected blast of solar radiation from the Earth’s Sun on Tuesday (Jan. 7) caused another 24 postponement because the highly energetic solar particles could have fried the delicate electronics controlling the rockets ascent with disastrous consequences.
Cygnus is loaded with science experiments, computer supplies, spacewalk tools, food, water, clothing and experimental hardware.
“The crew will unload Cygnus starting probably the next day after it docks at station,” said Culbertson.
Among the research items packed aboard the Cygnus flight are an experiment to study the effectiveness of antibiotics in space and a batch of 23 student experiments involving life sciences topics ranging from amoeba reproduction to calcium in the bones to salamanders.
The student experiments selected are from 6 middle school and high school teams from Michigan, Texas, Colorado, and Washington, DC.
Falcon 9 SpaceX CRS-2 launch of Dragon spacecraft on March 1, 2013 to the ISS from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida.- shot from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building. During 2014, SpaceX plans two flight tests simulating human crewed Dragon emergency abort scenarios launching from right here at pad 40. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com Story updated[/caption]
CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – A trio of American companies – SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada – are working diligently to restore America’s capability to launch humans into low Earth orbit from US soil, aided by seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program in a public-private partnership.
We’ve been following the solid progress made by all three companies. Here we’ll focus on two crucial test flights planned by SpaceX in 2014 to human rate and launch the crewed version of their entry into the commercial crew ‘space taxi’ sweepstakes, namely the Dragon spacecraft.
Recently I had the opportunity to speak about the upcoming test flights with the head of SpaceX, Elon Musk.
So I asked Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, about “what’s ahead in 2014”; specifically related to a pair of critical “abort tests” that he hopes to conduct with the human rated “version of our Dragon spacecraft.”
“Assuming all goes well, we expect to conduct [up to] two Dragon abort tests next year in 2014,” Musk told me.
The two abort flight tests in 2014 involve demonstrating the ability of the Dragon spacecraft abort system to lift an uncrewed spacecraft clear of a simulated launch emergency.
The crewed Dragon – also known as DragonRider – will be capable of lofting up to seven astronauts to the ISS and remaining docked for at least 180 days.
First a brief overview of the goals of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. It was started in the wake of the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle program which flew its final human crews to the International Space Station (ISS) in mid-2011.
“NASA has tasked SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada to develop spacecraft capable of safely transporting humans to the space station, returning that capability to the United States where it belongs,’ says NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
Since 2011, US astronauts have been 100% dependent on the Russians and their Soyuz capsules to hitch a ride to low Earth orbit and the ISS.
The abort tests are essential for demonstrating that the Dragon vehicle will activate thrusters and separate in a split second from a potentially deadly exploding rocket fireball to save astronauts lives in the event of a real life emergency – either directly on the launch pad or in flight.
“We are aiming to do at least the pad abort test next year [in 2014] with version 2 of our Dragon spacecraft that would carry astronauts,” Musk told me.
SpaceX plans to launch the crewed Dragon atop the human rated version of their own developed Falcon 9 next generation rocket, which is also being simultaneously developed to achieve all of NASA’s human rating requirements.
The initial pad abort test will test the ability of the full-size Dragon to safely push away and escape in case of a failure of its Falcon 9 booster rocket in the moments around launch, right at the launch pad.
“The purpose of the pad abort test is to demonstrate Dragon has enough total impulse (thrust) to safely abort,” SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin informed me.
For that test, Dragon will use its pusher escape abort thrusters to lift the Dragon safely away from the failing rocket. The vehicle will be positioned on a structural facsimile of the Dragon trunk in which the actual Falcon 9/Dragon interfaces will be represented by mockups.
This test will be conducted on SpaceX’s launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It will not include an actual Falcon 9 booster.
The second Dragon flight test involves simulating an in flight emergency abort scenario during ascent at high altitude at maximum aerodynamic pressure at about T plus 1 minute, to save astronauts lives. The pusher abort thrusters would propel the capsule and crew safely away from a failing Falcon 9 booster for a parachute assisted landing into the Atlantic Ocean.
“Assuming all goes well we expect to launch the high altitude abort test towards the end of next year,” Musk explained.
The second test will use the upgraded next generation version of the Falcon 9 that was successfully launched just weeks ago on its maiden mission from Cape Canaveral on Dec. 3. Read my earlier reports – starting here.
To date, SpaceX has already successfully launched the original cargo version of the Dragon a total of three times. And each one docked as planned at the ISS.
The next cargo Dragon bound for the ISS is due to lift off on Feb. 22, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, FL.
Orbital Sciences – the commercial ISS cargo competitor to SpaceX – plans to launch its Cygnus cargo vehicle on the Orb-1 mission bound for the ISS on Jan. 7 atop the firms Antares rocket from NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Watch for my on site reports from NASA Wallops.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program’s goal is launching American astronauts from U.S. soil within the next four years – by 2017 to the ISS.
The 2017 launch date is dependent on funding from the US federal government that will enable each of the firms to accomplish a specified series of milestones. NASA payments are only made after each companies milestones are successfully achieved.
SpaceX was awarded $440 million in the third round of funding in the Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCAP) initiative which runs through the third quarter of 2014. As of November 2013, NASA said SpaceX had accomplished 9 of 15 milestones and was on track to complete all on time.
Musk hopes to launch an initial Dragon orbital test flight with a human crew of SpaceX test pilots perhaps as early as sometime in 2015 – if funding and all else goes well.
Either a US commercial ‘space taxi’ or the Orion exploration capsule could have blasted off with American astronauts much sooner – if not for the continuing year-by-year slashes to NASA’s overall budget forced by the so called ‘political leaders’ of all parties in Washington, DC.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars and more news.
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL – Today (Dec. 3) marks the 3rd attempt by SpaceX to launch the maiden flight of their significantly upgraded Falcon 9 rocket with the SES-8 telecommunications satellite – following the Nov. 28 ‘Thanksgiving = Spacegiving Day’ scrub due to an aborted 1st stage engine firing in progress.
And the stakes could not be higher for the future of SpaceX – with the firms future launch manifest worth billions of dollars riding on the success of today’s liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
In an unprecedented launch event for SpaceX, the upper stage engine on the next generation Falcon 9 booster absolutely must restart in flight for a second time in order for the commercial SES-8 payload to be delivered to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).
Blastoff from Cape Canaveral’s seaside Space Launch Complex 40 is set for 5:41 p.m. EST (2241 GMT).
The Thanksgiving Day launch was aborted by the computers when the Marlin engines thrust failed to build up as fast as planned.
The weather forecast currently shows a 90% chance of favorable conditions at liftoff time according to Air Force meteorologists. The only concern is for winds.
The launch of SES-8 is a milestone marking the first ever attempt by SpaceX to place a satellite into the geostationary orbit replete with numerous high value commercial satellites. This is the doorway to the future profitability of SpaceX.
“I don’t want to tempt fate, but I think it’s going to have a pretty significant impact on the world launch market and on the launch industry because our prices are the most competitive of any in the world,” said SpaceX CEO and chief designer Elon Musk at a prelaunch briefing for media including Universe Today in Cocoa Beach, FL.
For the mission to be declared a success, the upper stage engine must reignite precisely as planned about 27 minutes after liftoff and burn for approximately 1 minute to successfully propel SES-8 into the propel orbit about 33 minutes after launch.
“Whether or not this launch is successful, I’m confident we will certainly make it on some subsequent launch,” said Musk.
“This is really rocking the industry. Everybody has to look out,” said Martin Halliwell, SES chief technical officer, who joined Musk at the prelaunch meeting.
The upgraded Falcon 9 will also be the launcher utilized for the manned SpaceX Dragon capsules launching to the ISS sometime later this decade!
And the very next satellite set for launch by SpaceX later in December – Thaicom 6- is essentially already waiting at the door to the onramp to space.
SpaceX plans a live broadcast of the Falcon 9 liftoff from pad 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL beginning at 5 p.m. EST.
It can be viewed here: www.spacex.com/webcast
The show will feature commentary about the Falcon 9 rocket and launch sequences and the SES-8 commercial satellite from SpaceX corporate headquarters in Hawthorne, CA.
The Falcon 9/SES-8 launch window extends for 86 minutes until 7:07 p.m. EST.
The 3,138 kg (6,918 lbs) SES-8 satellite is a hybrid Ku- and Ka-band spacecraft that will provide TV and communications coverage for the South Asia and Asia Pacific regions.
This mighty new version of the Falcon 9 dubbed v1.1 is powered by a cluster of nine of SpaceX’s new Merlin 1D engines that are about 50% more powerful compared to the standard Merlin 1C engines. The nine Merlin 1D engines 1.3 million pounds of thrust at sea level that rises to 1.5 million pounds as the rocket climbs to orbit
The Merlin 1-D engines are arrayed in an octaweb layout for improved efficiency.
Therefore the upgraded Falcon 9 can boost a much heavier cargo load to the ISS, low Earth orbit, geostationary orbit and beyond.
The next generation Falcon 9 is a monster. It measures 224 feet tall and is 12 feet in diameter. That compares to 13 stories for the original Falcon 9.
Stay tuned here for continuing SpaceX & MAVEN news and Ken’s SpaceX launch reports from on site at Cape Canaveral & the Kennedy Space Center press site.
Commercial space took another major leap forward this morning, Oct 22., when the privately developed Cygnus cargo vehicle undocked from the International Space Station on its historic maiden flight and successfully completed a highly productive month long stay during its demonstration mission – mostly amidst the US government shutdown.
The Cygnus was maneuvered about 10 meters (30 feet) away from the station and held in the steady grip of the stations fully extended robotic arm when astronauts Karen Nyberg and Luca Parmitano unlatched the arm and released the ship into free space at 7:31 a.m. EDT today – signifying an end to joint flight operations.
The next Cygnus resupply vessel is due to blast off in mid-December and is already loaded with new science experiments for microgravity research and assorted gear and provisions.
After the Expedition 37 crew members quickly pulled the arm back to a distance 1.5 meters away from Cygnus, ground controllers issued a planned “abort” command to fire the ships thrusters and safely depart from the massive orbiting lab complex.
“It’s been a great mission. Nice work today!” radioed Houston Mission Control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
The vehicles were flying over the Atlantic Ocean and off the east coast of Argentina as Cygnus left the station some 250 miles (400 km) overhead in low Earth orbit.
The event was carried live on NASA TV and Cygnus was seen moving rapidly away.
Barely five minutes later Cygnus was already 200 meters away, appeared very small in the cameras view and exited the imaginary “Keep Out Sphere” – a strictly designated safety zone around the million pound station.
The Cygnus resupply ship delivered about 1,300 pounds (589 kilograms) of cargo, including food, clothing, water, science experiments, spare parts and gear to the six person Expedition 37 crew.
After the crew unloaded all that cargo, they packed the ship with 2,850 pounds of no longer needed trash.
On Wednesday (Oct. 23), a pair of deorbit burns with target Cygnus for a destructive reentry back into the Earth’s atmosphere at 2:18 p.m. EDT, to plummet harmlessly into the Pacific Ocean.
Cygnus was developed by Orbital Sciences Corp. with seed money from NASA in a public-private partnership between NASA and Orbital Sciences under NASA’s COTS commercial transportation initiative.
SpaceX Corp. was also awarded a COTS contract to develop the Dragon cargo carrier so that NASA would have a dual capability to stock up the station.
COTS was aimed at fostering the development of America’s commercial space industry to deliver critical and essential supplies to the ISS following the retirement of the Space Shuttle program.
“Congratulations to the teams at Orbital Sciences and NASA who worked hard to make this demonstration mission to the International Space Station an overwhelming success,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement.
“We are delighted to now have two American companies able to resupply the station. U.S. innovation and inspiration have once again shown their great strength in the design and operation of a new generation of vehicles to carry cargo to our laboratory in space. Orbital’s success today is helping make NASA’s future exploration to farther destinations possible.”
America completely lost its capability to send humans and cargo to the ISS when NASA’s space shuttles were forcibly retired in 2011. Orbital Sciences and SpaceX were awarded NASA contracts worth over $3 Billion to restore the unmanned cargo resupply capability over 20 flights totally.
Barely 11 minutes after I witnessed the spectacular March 1 blastoff of the Dragon atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, everyone’s glee suddenly turned to disbelief and gloom with the alarming news from SpaceX Mission Control that contact had been lost.
I asked SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk to explain what caused the failure and how they saved the drifting, uncontrolled Dragon capsule from doom – just in the nick of time.
Applying the space version of the Heimlich maneuver turned out to be the key. But if you can’t talk to the patient – all is lost.
Right after spacecraft separation in low Earth orbit , a sudden and unexpected failure of the Dragon’s critical thrust pods had prevented three out of four from initializing and firing. The oxidizer pressure was low in three tanks. And the propulsion system is required to orient the craft for two way communication and to propel the Dragon to the orbiting lab complex.
Then, SpaceX engineers and the U.S Air Force sprang into action and staged an amazing turnaround.
“The problem was a very tiny change to the check valves that serve the oxidizer tanks on Dragon.” Musk told Universe Today
“Three of the check valves were actually different from the prior check valves that had flown – in a very tiny way. Because of the tiny change they got stuck.”
SpaceX engineers worked frantically to troubleshoot the thruster issues in an urgent bid to overcome the serious glitch and bring the crucial propulsion systems back on line.
“What we did was we were able to write some new software in real time and upload that to Dragon to build pressure upstream of the check valves and then released that pressure- to give it a kind of a kick,” Musk told me at a NASA media briefing.
“For the spacecraft you could call it kind of a Heimlich maneuver. Basically that got the valves unstuck and then they worked well”
“But we had difficulty communicating with the spacecraft because it was in free drift in orbit.”
“So we worked closely with the Air Force to get higher intensity, more powerful dishes to communicate with the spacecraft and upload the software to do the Heimlich pressure maneuver.”
Just how concerned was Musk?
“Yes, definitely it was a worrying time,” Musk elaborated.
“It was a little frightening,” Musk had said right after the March 1 launch.
Later in the briefing Musk explained that there had been a small design change to the check valves by the supplier.
“The supplier had made mistakes that we didn’t catch,” said Musk. “You would need a magnifying glass to see the difference.”
SpaceX had run the new check valves through a series of low pressurization systems tests and they worked well and didn’t get stuck. But SpaceX had failed to run the functional tests at higher pressures.
“We’ll make sure we don’t repeat that error in the future,” Musk stated.
Musk added that SpaceX will revert to the old check valves and run tests to make sure this failure doesn’t happen again.
Orbital’s Antares rocket could blast off on its first test mission as early as April 17.
Of course the Dragon CRS-2 flight isn’t the first inflight space emergency, and surely won’t be the last either.
So, for some additional perspective on the history of reacting to unexpected emergencies in space on both human spaceflight and robotic science probes, Universe Today contacted noted space historian Roger Launius, of the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum (NASM).
Roger provided these insights to Universe Today editor Nancy Atkinson – included here:
“There are many instances in the history of spaceflight in which the mission had difficulties that were overcome and it proved successful,” said Launius.
“Let’s start with Hubble Space Telescope which had a spherical aberration on its mirror and the first reports in 1990 were that it would be a total loss, but the engineers found workarounds that allowed it to be successful even before the December 1993 servicing mission by a shuttle crew that really turned it into a superb scientific instrument.”
“Then what about Galileo, the Jupiter probe, which had a problem with its high gain antenna. It never did fully deploy but the engineers found ways to overcome that problem with the communication system and the spacecraft turned into a stunning success.”
“If you want to feature human spaceflight let’s start with the 1999 shuttle flight with Eileen Collins as commander that had a shutdown of the SSMEs prematurely and it failed to reach its optimum orbit. It still completed virtually all of the mission requirements.”
“That says nothing about Apollo 13,… I could go on and on. In virtually every mission there has been something potentially damaging to the mission that has happened. Mostly the folks working the mission have planned for contingencies and implement them and the public rarely hears about it as it looks from the outside like a flawless operation.”
“Bottom line, the recovery of the Dragon capsule was not all that amazing. It was engineers in the space business doing what they do best,” said Launius.
The SpaceX Dragon commercially developed cargo craft loaded with thousands of pounds of precious science samples has departed from the International Space Station at 6:56 a.m EDT this morning (March 26) and is heading back to Earth today for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean at around 12:34 p.m EDT.
The ISS crew commanded the Dragon’s release by a trigger at the robotic work station inside the Cupola as they were soaring some 250 miles over the northeast coast of Australia after Mission Control gave the “GO for release”.
A video of the unberthing is below:
Cameras aboard both the ISS and Dragon transmitted breathtaking views of the departure maneuver. The entire ISS filled the video screen as Dragon slowly pulled away.
The private Dragon was unberthed from a docking port on the Harmony node at 4:10 a.m. EDT in anticipation of today’s return to Earth.
NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn and station commander Chris Hadfield from Canada opened the snares on the stations Canadian built robotic arm – Canadarm2 – firmly grasping the Dragon.
A series of three short departure burns executed in rapid succession took Dragon safely away from the ISS and beyond the imaginary 656-foot (200-meter) “Keep Out Sphere” around the station for the journey back to Earth.
Everything with Dragon happened as expected said NASA.
“All looks beautiful and nominal as expected,” radioed the ISS crew.
The Dragon capsule is the first private ship ever to dock at the ISS.
Dragon will fire its engines for the last time for the 10 minute long deorbit burn at 11:42 a.m. EDT sending it through the Earth’s atmosphere for a fiery reentry and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean around 12:34 p.m.
“Sad to see the Dragon go,” said Marshburn. “She performed her job beautifully and is heading back to her lair. Wish her all the best for the splashdown today.”
A team of SpaceX engineers, technicians and divers will recover the vehicle after splashdown about 214 miles off the coast of Baja, California.
SpaceX recovery crews will pluck the capsule from the Pacific Ocean for the journey back to shore which will take about 30 hours.
Dragon had been scheduled to return yesterday on Monday, March 25, but was postponed due to inclement weather developing near its targeted splashdown site in the Pacific Ocean.
There was no affect on the return of the science samples and gear weighing a hefty 2668 pounds. Dragon is the only vehicle that can safely return significant amounts of science cargo and gear from the ISS following the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters.
A thruster failure shortly after liftoff nearly doomed the mission. But fast acting SpaceX engineers saved the day and restarted the engines a few hours later – read my earlier story here.
The resupply mission carried aloft some 1200 pounds of food, water and science experiments for the station crew.
After a two day flight, Marshburn captured the Dragon just 32 feet away from the station with the Canadarm2 on March 3. Ground controllers then took over Canadarm2 operations and berthed Dragon to the Harmony node.
SpaceX is under contract to NASA to deliver about 44,000 pounds of cargo to the ISS during a dozen flights over the next few years at a cost of about $1.6 Billion.
SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp are partnered with NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program to replace the cargo up mass capability the US lost following the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters in 2011.
Kennedy Space Center – Barely 11 minutes after the spectacular Friday morning, March 1 launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and unmanned Dragon capsule bound for the International Space Station (ISS), absolute glee suddenly threatened to turn to total gloom when the mission suffered an unexpected failure in the critical propulsion system required to propel the Dragon to the Earth orbiting outpost.
An alarming issue with the Dragons thrust pods prevented three out of four from initializing and firing.
For several hours the outlook for the $133 million mission appeared dire, but gradually began to improve a few hours after launch.
“It was a little frightening,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk at a Friday afternoon media briefing for reporters gathered at the Kennedy Space Center, commenting on the moments after the glitch appeared out of nowhere.
“We noticed after separation that only one of the four thruster pods engaged or was ready to engage,” Musk explained. “And then we saw that the oxidizer pressure in three of the four tanks was low.”
The situation progressed onto the road to recovery after SpaceX engineers immediately sprang into action and frantically worked to troubleshoot the thruster problems in an urgent bid to try and bring the crucial propulsion systems back on line and revive the mission.
By late Saturday afternoon sufficient recovery work had been accomplished to warrant NASA, ISS and SpaceX managers to give the go-ahead for the Dragon to rendezvous with the station early Sunday morning, March 3.
“The station’s Mission Management Team unanimously agreed that Dragon’s propulsion system is operating normally along with its other systems and ready to support the rendezvous two days after Friday’s launch on a Falcon 9 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida,” NASA announced in a statement on Saturday, March 2.
A failure to ignite the thrusters within 1 or 2 days would have resulted in unacceptable orbital decay and a quick and unplanned fiery reentry into the earth’s atmosphere, said Musk.
Reentry would cause a total loss of the mission – carrying more than a ton of vital supplies, science gear, research experiments, spare parts, food, water and provisions to orbit for the stations six man crew.
Shortly after the Dragon achieved orbit and separated from the second stage, the solar arrays failed to deploy and the live webcast stopped prematurely.
During the course of the Friday afternoon briefing, Musk and NASA officials received continuous updates indicating the situating was changing and slowly improving.
Musk confirmed that SpaceX was able to bring all four of Dragon’s thruster pods back up and running. Engineers were able to identify and correct the issue, normalizing the pressure in the oxidation tanks.
The problem may have been caused by stuck valves or frozen oxidizer in the lines. Dragon has four oxidizer tanks and four fuel tanks.
“We think there may have been a blockage of some kind or stuck check valves going from the helium pressure tank to the oxidizer tank,” Musk hypothesized. “Whatever that blockage is seems to have alleviated.”
Three of the four thruster pods must be active before the Dragon would be permitted to dock, said Mike Suffredini, NASA program manager for the ISS. There are a total of 18 Draco thrusters.
SpaceX and the ISS partners conducted a thorough review process to assure that the thrusters will work as advertised and allow the Dragon to safely enter the stations keep out zone and physically dock at the berthing port onto the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module.
“SpaceX said it has high confidence there will be no repeat of the thruster problem during rendezvous, including its capability to perform an abort, should that be required,” NASA said in a statement.
Dragon is now slated to be grappled early Sunday morning at 6:31 a.m. by NASA Expedition 34 Commander Kevin Ford and NASA Flight Engineer Tom Marshburn – that’s one day past the originally planned Saturday morning docking.
Video: Falcon 9 SpaceX CRS-2 launch on March 1, 2013 bound for the ISS – shot from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building. Credit: Matthew Travis/Spacearium
NASA says that despite the one-day docking delay, the Dragon unberthing and parachute assisted return to Earth will still be the same day as originally planned on March 25.
There are numerous docking opportunities available in the coming days if SpaceX and NASA determined that more time was needed to gain confidence that Dragon could safely carry out an attempt.
Musk said the Dragon could stay on orbit for several additional months if needed.
We have to review the data with NASA before docking to make sure it’s safe, Musk emphasized on Friday.
The mission dubbed CRS-2 will be only the 2nd commercial resupply mission ever to berth at the ISS. SpaceX is under contract to NASA to conduct a dozen Dragon resupply flight to the ISS over the next few years at a cost of about $1.6 Billion.
NASA TV coverage of rendezvous and grapple on Sunday, March 3 will begin at 3:30 a.m. EST. Coverage of berthing operations on NASA TV will begin at 8 a.m.
SpaceX’s live coverage at http://www.spacex.com/webcast begins at 6:00 a.m. Eastern.
Video Caption: At NASA, we’ve been a little busy: landing on Mars, developing new human spacecraft, going to the space station, working with commercial partners, observing the Earth and the Sun, exploring our solar system and understanding our universe. And that’s not even everything.Credit: NASA
Check out this cool action packed video titled “NASA: Reaching for New Heights” – to see NASA’s ‘Greatest Hits’ from the past year
The 4 minute film is a compilation of NASA’s gamut of Robotic Science and Human Spaceflight achievements to explore and understand Planet Earth here at home and the heavens above- ranging from our Solar System and beyond to the Galaxy and the vast expanse of the Universe.
Image caption: Planets and Moons in perspective. Credit: NASA
Image caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off on May 22, 2012 with Dragon cargo capsule from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on the first commercial mission to the International Space Station. The next launch is set for March 1, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer
SpaceX has released a cool video (above) recapping the mission highlights of the historic May 22 blastoff of the firm’s Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon spacecraft that went on to become the first privately developed vehicle in history to successfully dock to the International Space Station (ISS) on May 25, 2012.
Dragon was captured with a robotic arm operated by astronauts Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers working in tandem aboard the ISS as it approached the massive orbiting lab complex and was then berthed at an Earth facing port.
Dragon was the first US spacecraft to attach to the ISS since the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle program last July 2011 following the STS-135 mission of shuttle Atlantis. The 14.4 ft (4.4 meter) long resupply vehicle delivered over 1000 pounds of non-critical gear, food, clothing and science equipment to the ISS.
After spending six days at the ISS, the Dragon undocked and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean some 560 miles off the coast of California on May 31, 2012.
Image Caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket clears the tower after liftoff at 3:44 a.m. on May 22, 2012 from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.,on the first commercial mission to loft the Dragon cargo resupply vehicle to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com
The Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo carrier were designed, developed and built by Hawthorne, Calif., based SpaceX Corporation, founded in 2002 by CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk.
SpaceX signed a contract with NASA in 2006 to conduct twelve Falcon 9/Dragon resupply missions to carry about 44,000 pounds of cargo to the ISS at a cost of some $1.6 Billion over the next few years. The first operational Dragon CRS mission is slated to blast off around October 2012.
Read my Universe Today articles starting here for further details about the historic SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon mission to the ISS.